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Teenagers cruising in a 1957 Chevy in Albany, New York

Teenagers cruise in a 1957 Chevy in Albany, New York. The number of teens who drive today is dropping, and researchers have multiple theories why.

PHOTOGRAPH BY HARVEY L. SILVER, CORBIS

Marianne Lavelle

National Geographic

Published December 17, 2013

Throw a sheet over the little deuce coupe, park the little red Corvette, and send the pink Cadillac to the ranch.

U.S. teenagers just aren't as into driving as they used to be, U.S. government forecasters acknowledged Monday in dramatically altered projections for transportation energy use over the next 25 years. (Take the related quiz: What You Don't Know About Cars and Fuel.)

Growth in "vehicle-miles traveled" (VMT)—that key gauge of America's love affair with the automobile that once reliably ratcheted up year after year—will slow dramatically, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) says in its new Annual Energy Outlook. The EIA slashed its projected annual VMT growth rate to 0.9 percent, a drop of 25 percent compared to its forecast only a year ago.

The change is partly due to slower population growth, but also because of a generational shift confirmed by at least four studies in the past year. In the United States, young people are not only driving less than teens did a generation ago, they aren't even getting licenses.

Graph showing decline in young drivers

Put that demographic trend together with the dramatic increase in fuel economy expected in the years ahead, and U.S. energy consumption to fuel cars is expected to drop one-quarter to 12.1 quadrillion Btu by 2040. (See related, "Pictures: A Rare Look Inside Carmakers' Drive for 55.")

It sounds like good news for everyone except carmakers and songwriters, but the figures have stirred ferocious debate among numbers-crunchers. Is indifference to motoring, like so many other youth trends, a passing phase? Or have we finally erased the last traces of American Graffiti and the car-centric teen culture that once celebrated cruising, hot-rodding, and drive-ins? (See related, "Pictures: Cars That Fired Our Love-Hate Relationship With Fuel.")

These are more than academic questions, since they affect a huge chunk of the economy. U.S. energy and transportation forecasters plan to look more deeply into the reasons behind the trends, but here are the key theories that have been aired so far.

With "Virtual" Access, No Need for Wheels

Researchers at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) note that the percentage of young drivers is inversely related to the proportion of Internet users. Social media may be taking the place of motorized transportation, they theorize.

"Virtual contact, through electronic means, reduces the need for actual contact," said Michael Sivak, a research professor in UMTRI's human factors group. Bolstering this theory is international data the Michigan researchers compiled showing that in countries around the world, a higher proportion of Internet users was associated with lower rates of licensed young drivers.

Seven countries, including Canada, South Korea, Germany, and Japan, are seeing similar shifts in the demographics of licensed drivers. (See related, "Driving the Limit: Wealthy Nations Maxed Out on Travel?")

In the United States, the Michigan team found that the percentage of 19-year-olds with driver's licenses fell from 87 percent to 70 percent between 1983 and 2010. For 17-year-olds, the fall was even more dramatic, from 69 percent in 1983 to 46 percent by 2010.

Times Are Too Tough for Teen Driving

The insurance industry's research arm, the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), pointedly disputes the "virtual access" theory. Its analysis of U.S. collision insurance policies confirms the trend, showing a 12 percent drop in covered teen drivers just since 2006. But HLDI said the fall-off tracked with an increase in unemployment that was steeper among teens than for the general population of drivers. "It looks like teens just can't afford to drive," said HLDI Vice President Matt Moore. "Paying for their own cars, gas, and insurance is hard if they can't find a job."

Scientists with the Centers for Disease Control also cited economic factors in their analysis of the downward trend in teen driving.

Moore argued the trend may be transitory. "As the economy picks up again, it's possible that more teenagers will get behind the wheel," Moore said. "Unfortunately, that may also mean a rise in teen crash fatalities, which have been trending downward."

It's a Matter of Choice

But the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) argues that something fundamental has changed in how young people feel about cars. "Many members of Generation Y have reduced their driving because they choose to take transportation alternatives instead of cars to school, work, and recreation, and because many have chosen to live in ways that require less time behind the wheel of a car," PIRG said in a report compiling a number of polls that support the theory. PIRG followed up with a report on the overall downward trend in U.S. driving, showing that cities with the biggest drops in driving had no greater unemployment than cities with smaller declines. (See related, "Car Sharing Widens Lanes of Access for City Drivers.")

Said PIRG, "Growing evidence—both anecdotal and quantitative—suggests that some of this change is being driven by shifts in young people's priorities and preferences, shifts that could very well persist as Generation Y ages." (Related: "Bike Share Schemes Shift Into High Gear")

They Just Haven't Gotten Around to It

But only 9 percent of young nondrivers cited concern over how driving affects the environment as their reason for putting off getting a license, a survey by the Michigan researchers found. The top reason for putting off getting a license, cited by 37 percent of respondents, was far less lofty: "too busy or not enough time to get a driver's license."

Among the other (primary or secondary) reasons cited was something to support almost any of the competing theories: 32 percent said owning and maintaining a vehicle was too expensive, 31 percent said they were able to get transportation from others, 22 percent said they preferred to bike or walk, and 17 percent said they preferred public transit.

Twenty-two percent of the young nondrivers said they never planned on getting a driver's license—a minority, but one researchers will be trying to understand better in the years ahead. (Related: "Supercomputing Power Could Pave the Way to Energy-Efficient Engines")

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

14 comments
C. Schroeder
C. Schroeder

I think there is one data point that has been overlooked.  In the 1980s a driver's license was the primary form of picture ID accepted when writing a check for a purchase at the point of sale.  As the decade progressed, a person more frequently needed a driver's license plus a major credit card to write a check, but many of us still wrote checks instead of charging the purchase to a credit card as a method of personal money management.  Then the debit card eventually replaced writing checks at the point of sale, hence a reduced need now for a driver's license if you don't want/need to drive.

C. Schroeder
C. Schroeder

I think there is one data point that has been overlooked.  In the 1980s a driver's license was the primary form of ID used to write checks for purchases at the point of sale.  As the decade progressed a person more frequently needed a driver's license and a major credit card to write a check, but many of us still wrote checks instead of charging the purchase to a credit card.  Then the debit card eventually replaced writing checks at the point of sale, hence a reduced need for a driver's license even if you didn't want/need to do much driving.

Dan Kaminsky
Dan Kaminsky

How can you write an article about teens driving less without mentioning they're not allowed to do interesting things when they drive?  Graduated licensing has become quite popular, and it basically means that the younger you are the less you're allowed to do with a vehicle.  If you could only watch one channel on cable I imagine cable watching would drop too.

Henry Thoreau
Henry Thoreau

They're UNEMPLOYED you idjit.  Teens used to work.

Nate Jones
Nate Jones

I think It has to do with all the factors. The main ones are not being able to find a job, (pointless to get a car or license) and the internet / I Phones. On the phones you can face time, play games, text, etc. Internet has GREATLY increased in all areas, you can pretty much do/learn about anything on the internet.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

I personally have two kids that have grown up in the Generation Y group, And my oldest, who is now 25 didn't get their license until 19 and my other is now 23 still has not gotten one. A great portion of the reason is because they did not NEED one. Of course neither did we, But we did not have as many options either. At any rate I think it is just delayed and not that they are not going to get one at all. And then some of the numbers will rebound, albeit not by as much as originally predicted.

John Kalawak
John Kalawak

IT is pretty simple. The internet is turning people into anti-social idiots. I predict  rash of suicides in the next decade or so as people who grew up in the internet's "awe" stage wake up and realize they are approaching age 30 and have wasted their entire existence online and now have no social skills to ever have a REAL life.

Jim Lux
Jim Lux

I think another factor is the new laws that prevent teens from carrying passengers and driving after 11PM.  It's one thing to grab 3 friends and hop in the car and go to the beach. It's totally different to have 4 cars and caravan to the beach, and then try to find 4 parking spots.  Or go to the movies, etc.

Certainly, the no passengers rule and curfew are helping reduce accidents and casualties,  but the picture at the head of the article shows something that is distinctly unusual in today's teen life.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

I think it's just that so many youngsters can't afford to drive today. Most people want the freedom and independence that comes with owning a car, especially when they start driving and experience freedom for the first time. Many just don't have the money today.  

Fred Bogusheimer
Fred Bogusheimer

Having grown up in a relatively remote suburb of a small city, and having no public transit out in our area, for me and my friends a license was the key to independence.  Being able to go into town to shop, hang out, play videogames at the arcade (remember those?), chase girls, etc, without having to ask our parents for a drive, or walk a looooong way.  Pretty much everyone I knew got their driver's license just as soon as possible.  I drove one or another of my parents' cars for years afterwards.


Of course, when I was 16 (1983) we had a fuel-efficient car (a Nissan Micra) that got the kind of mileage that few cars other than hybrids can match these days, and gasoline was under $.50/litre (compared to about $1.25 today).  Today cars are much more expensive, gas is more expensive, insurance is expensive.  But I suspect if I was 16 today in the same place, I'd still want my license right away.

Albert E
Albert E

@John Kalawak I find it ironic that your reply has the least amount of social skill out of all the comments here.

John Kalawak
John Kalawak

@Andrew Booth Funny...when I was a teenager, I sure as hell couldn't afford $100 a month for a cell phone and data plan.

Miss Cellania
Miss Cellania

@John Kalawak@Andrew Booth I have two teenagers. Unlimited phone service costs $15 a month for each of them. Drivers insurance will cost around $200 a month for each of them. Both services are just additions to the family plan, but the amounts are vastly different.

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